Sunday, February 28, 2010

What Is Faith? (Part 2)

So what does a proper understanding of faith mean for the Christian? We talked last time about the misguided assumption that it must be held contrary to evidence. But if faith isn't just blindly assenting to the beliefs of one's church or culture, then what is it?

If you ask any Christian who is somewhat familiar with the Bible for a definition of faith, you will likely get the following response:

"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." 1

This verse admittedly defines faith for many Christians, and read in isolation it could be interpreted as advocating the very view I wrote against in my last post. The problem is that this verse was not intended as a strict definition of the concept. As one commentary puts it, "[This verse] is not really a formal definition of faith; rather it is a description of what faith does for us." 2

On this more precise understanding, this verse can be interpreted as saying that faith (our loyal belief in and attitude towards God) allows us to feel certainty about the object of our hope and about those aspects of our relationship with God that are not always immediately clear (such as trusting Him through a difficult decision).

My friend H.L. Hussmann (whose blog can be found here) illustrates this idea better than anyone else I've heard. He relates the story of Charles Blondin, a 19th century French tight-rope walker who became famous for carrying all sorts of objects (including his manager) across Niagara Falls on a tight-rope. He asks us to imagine watching Blondin push a wheelbarrow back and forth across the rope several times with no difficulty and then asking the audience if they think he can do the same again, but this time with a person in the wheelbarrow. It is easy to imagine the crowd shouting in approval until the next question comes: "Can I have a volunteer?"

Here is where Biblical faith comes in. Our beliefs that God is and that He can are well-grounded by the evidence. But faith is trusting that evidence enough to take action. And it is the only appropriate response to the revelation that God has given.

This also helps us avoid another alarmingly common misunderstanding of faith: that it is something that will allow us to avoid difficulty of all kinds if only we can get enough of it. This idea treats faith as though it were some metaphysical currency that can be collected and cashed in when needed, but given the definition of faith that we have worked out, it is clear why this is inadequate.

Faith as an attitude and response toward God leaves no place for this escapist understanding. Rather than allowing us to avoid problems (e.g. the problem of too little evidence), Biblical faith pushes us to honesty about our situation and then calls us to trust God to bring us through it. I suppose it is possible for one person to trust more than another (and so have 'more faith'), but the very idea of trust presupposes some struggle. This is precisely why it is so difficult.

I can believe in Blondin's abilities easily from a distance, but continuing to believe from inside the wind-tossed wheelbarrow is another story entirely. This requires genuine faith, not a cheap counterfeit.

1Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)
2Believer's Bible Commentary. Ed. by William MacDonald


  1. If you look at Heb. 11:1 in context then it is seen as a description of what true faith looks like. Heb 10:39 says "we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believed and are saved." Chapter 11 opens with the statement then that true faith does not shrink back and are destroyed (the evidence of things not seen). Heb 11 starts then a call list of people who believed and were saved according to the closing verse in Chapter 10. So as Kyle talked about in the first post for faith, our faith is not blind. The evidence for what we believe is shown in our actions. Who can refute the disciples dying for the cause of Jesus, unless they really did see Him rise from the grave? Who can refute us when we go through trials and tribulations, handling them with the confidence of Christ? This is surely a desirable characteristic and the evidence of what we believe in God. We are looking for the coming of Jesus and the building of His kingdom instead of our own welfare and desires. This is evidence that we are not seeking self gratification through religion, but actually the gratification of someone greater. The evidence of faith and faithfulness in God is shown daily in our lives; justifying our belief through faithful practice of a faith in God.

    Paul Hefner

  2. Right I like what you're saying, just a little clarification. So if I am following you here, the object of belief is some proposition (or something of the sort) e.g. God exists. God can... . The belief is based on evidence. With faith the object is a person- in Christian faith Jesus. Faith based on something then... belief(s)?

    Also, don't we need to trust the evidence to form a belief? Do you mean to say that faith is further along the spectrum of trust than belief, and that's the difference. I'm not sure if that makes sense if belief is in propositions and faith is in persons. That's what I got from your amusing tight rope example but I don't know if this was the point.

    Where you really need to give more is in this: faith moves us to action in a way beliefs don't. It sounds good but give me more of how and why this is.

    Am I missing the boat somewhere? Maybe I missed you on what you mean by belief.

  3. Great questions! I do love real challenges. Thanks. :)

    So, the relation between faith and belief: I am defining faith as inherently active, and maintaining that that action is unavoidably based on (in some way that might need to be spelled out*) belief, and that that belief is formed the way all belief is formed--i.e. things like reasons, evidence, authority, testimony, intuition, etc. It is not a special case in this sense. So, the faith itself (again, an action) is preceded by some experience or other that results in assenting to some proposition or other (like "God exists" or "Jesus rose from the dead," but more likely something like "God loves me," or "God wants me to do x"), and this forms a belief.

    Faith, then, is action born of trust in the character of a person that is known. Now, here "known" is vague: it includes the sort of propositional knowledge just mentioned, but it is also (and most centrally) distinct from this in that it is relational. That's not to say that it's nonrational--it is consistent with and even inseparable from propositional knowledge (and hence compatible with some McDowell-like view of rationality). But it isn't *just* propositional, any more than two friends' knowledge of one another is just propositional. That is to say, even if the set of all true propositions describing the two friends and their interaction were given, one still would not have exhausted the knowledge the friends have of one another, because their knowledge (in the relational sense) exists in a state of becoming. It is dynamic and evolving, and thus always incomplete. It can at any time be translated into propositional form for the purposes of communication, but it is not *in itself* necessarily propositional. At any rate, faith begins after such knowledge is gained, and is always active, always visible. Thus, your central question is misplaced: "Where you really need to give more is in this: faith moves us to action in a way beliefs don't. It sounds good but give me more of how and why this is." As should be clear now, this is not my position because I don't draw a distinction between faith and action. Perhaps I should have made this clearer in the posts.

    *I want to say, though, that I have no special obligation to give a full account of exactly how this happens. I can, if I want, adopt whatever the prevailing position is among epistemologists, at least until I get tenure and write a book explaining it all that makes me famous.

  4. nice little side step. No need to give a complete action theory (which is definitively the sort of thing that will make you famous- every small child will know your name and want to be just like you) but why should we accept a conception of faith that is inherently active? I mean this definition works really well, and has a lot of positive results. Are we going with it for these reasons despite the fact that its not intuitively what you think of as faith.

    I suppose to answer my own question that was the point of part 1. The biblical conception of faith isn't a quality you posses separable from actions. I would have to spend time and look at all the insentience of faith (or lack there of) being ascribed to people to decide if I agree with this. That would have been more convincing to me in part 1 (you obviously couldn't sight every insistence but still) All the instances that spring to my mind are consistent though. E.G. Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac, or a group bringing a paraplegic to Jesus. Negative cases aren't springing to mind, but if you're looking to develop it at all at some point that't the direction I would be interested in seeing.